“Hey. Hey, wake up!”
Ben snapped from his reverie. “I’m awake! I’m awake. I wasn’t asleep. God Abbey, can’t a man rest his eyes once in a while?” He pressed the panel and the pod door slid open.
“Inside the Mark Three? The greatest advancement in the history of mankind since fire? You sure know how to pick your spots!”
He stood and pressed his hands into the small of his back. A satisfying series of pops rewarded him. Fogged thoughts tried to condense but dissipated. Perhaps he had been asleep. He shouldn’t feel this hazy. He looked at Abbey and saw her wide-eyed stare. “What is it?”
“No-nothing,” she stuttered, “You just look…well, terrible.”
He rolled his eyes. “Thanks. It’s been a hell of a week. You’re heading out?” He walked to the sink and washed his hands, rubbing off some ink that had made it onto his palm. Again, a thought tried to crystallize. He shook it away. If it was important it would come to him in its own time.
“Yeah,” Abbey replied, “Are you ready for tomorrow?”
Ben glanced at his watch and grinned at her. “Of course! It’s what we’ve been waiting for isn’t it? The public announcement of Project Chronos! A nice payslip from the MOD and worldwide fame as the creators of the first functioning time machine.”
“There’s no need to sound so happy about it!” she snapped.
“Oh come on Abbey, this again? They’re using it for crisis prevention, it’s hardly a weapon.”
“And how long until they turn it into one?”
Ben sighed. Déjà vu, he thought. How many times had they had this conversation? “I’m not getting into this with you again Abbey. In any case, it’s too late. The directors ruled on your appeal.”
He could practically see her shake as her rage waxed. Then, to his surprise she calmed abruptly. She nodded towards the door. They walked, Abbey’s low heels clacking sharply on the sterile, white floor.
“You’re right,” she sighed, “but for the record, I still don’t think we’re ready. We need to look at the cooldown period again.”
He rolled his eyes. “Oh come on! We’ve been through this a hundred times. That’s why we have the protocols, for both the machine and the users. And anyway, what’s the worst that could happen? It’s only thirty minutes, what could possibly happen in thirty minutes?”
She riled. “You’re talking about mixing time travel and amnesia. Temporary though the latter may be, anything could happen!”
“Look Abbey, we’re talking about trained professionals here.”
“But what use is their training if they can’t remember it?!”
“That’s not how it works and you know it. We’re only talking about a temporary disruption in their short to mid-term episodic recollection, that’s all. All semantic and procedural memory is left completely intact! They’ll still be able to read the signs and warnings, open the capsule and if, on the negligible chance that our calculations are off and they touch down in hostile territory, they’ll have the training to deal with it. They’ve been training using the protocols you wrote since Dr Werner built the Mark One. They’re soldiers for Christ’s sake Abbey! They’re built to act without thinking!”
Abbey mouth shut, her lips narrowing to a line. “You know what I think about that. But their profession aside I still say it leaves them vulnerable.”
“Is this your closed loop objection? I thought we put that to bed. Or have you forgotten about the Erics?”
He jabbed a thumb to his left. Two men stood arguing, dressed in identical lab-coats with identical coffee stains, four gangled arms flailing for emphasis, pointed faces red with frustration.
“Arguing over their wife no doubt,” commented Ben.
Despite herself, Abbey snuffled laughter. “No, hah…ahem, no. I haven’t forgotten about the Erics. What I mean is hah, sorry. I still can’t believe he managed to clone himself.”
“It’s his own damn fault. If you’re going to travel an hour into the past, making sure you don’t meet yourself is a matter of basic common sense.”
“In any case,” said Abbey firmly, “the point is that the Erics only proved that closed loops are a danger. The blueprint paradox is only possible when we can split timelines.”
Ben’s forehead furrowed but he said nothing, hoping to bypass the oncoming lecture. Unfortunately Abbey spotted his blankness. She rolled her eyes.
“Don’t tell me that I’m going to have to take you through this on the whiteboard?”
“Hey, I’m only the neuro-engineer, you’re the brains behind it all!”
“You should at least know the basic paradoxes! Never mind, we’ll go in here.”
They entered the staff room. Abbey deposited her bag on a chair and approached the board. Ben found that he was famished and grabbed a boost bar from the fridge. There was only one left. Blueberry. He hated blueberry, he could always taste it for hours afterwards. In fact he was tasting it now just thinking about it. Unwrapping it he turned to see Abbey in front of the board, posed like a school ma’am, tapping her pen impatiently.
He bit into his bar and gestured for her to continue.
“Right. Let’s pretend that you’re a brilliant scientist.”
“Oh grow up.”
She drew a long, right-pointing arrow. “You spend decades researching time travel and develop blueprints for a machine, which you then build.” She tapped the arrow’s head. “Here, you realise that you could enjoy this machine more if you were thirty years younger, so you travel back in time-” A long curve connected the end of the arrow with its start. “-and leave the blueprints for your younger self to find.”
Again, those foggy thoughts clouded Ben’s head. He pushed them away. This was hard enough to understand as it was.
“This creates a new timeline where,” Another arrow was drawn parallel to the first. “you find the blueprints lying about and build the machine with none of the understanding you developed over a long career of trial and error. You’re just following the instructions of a much smarter man.”
“Is that how you see me?” Ben asked through a full mouth, “crouching on the shoulders of giants?”
“Let’s leave your inferiority to Dr Werner out of this, rest his soul.”
“Rest his soul.”
The pen tapped again on the second arrow. “In any case, because you lack the understanding that anyone intending to travel through time should possess you mistakenly think you have to leave yourself the blueprints and so travel back in your own timeline, leaving them at the point you found them.” Another arc, connecting the end of the second arrow to its start. “Before going on your merry way.”
A crease fissured Ben’s forehead. There was something important here. He wished he knew what it was.
Reading his confusion, Abbey tapped the arc sharply. “Here’s the important part. You haven’t changed the course of events and so no new timeline is created. Young you comes along, finds the blueprints, makes the machine, goes back leaves the blueprints again and so on and so on. The only effect is that the first timeline-” Another tap. “-where you actually created the blueprints is aborted, vanished.”
“So the older me never arrives?”
“No. The only remaining artefact of the first timeline are the blueprints themselves.”
The fissure deepened. “I see…I think.”
Abbey exhaled with frustration. “It doesn’t matter whether you understand it or not. The point is there’s a threat of closed loops.”
“Alright. I’ll accept the threat exists. However, I’m still missing how this applies.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, if I’m not mistaken, the only thing that this whole scenario results in is the non-existence of one old man, whose new, younger self is much happier with his time machine.”
“But what about the blueprints?”
“What do you mean?”
“They’re trapped, Ben. Trapped in a closed loop, travelling endlessly through the same stretch of repeating time.”
“They’re blueprints Abbey,”
“Yes, but what if it happens to someone sent back by our machine?”
“You’re forgetting one thing, we’re not sending back inanimate objects, we’re sending live, more-or-less intelligent humans who are following your carefully written protocols. For them to be trapped they need to make a mistake. And not just one mistake, the same mistake over and over, never learning, never altering their actions in the slightest.” He took another bite of the bar.
“Which if they can’t remember the last thirty minutes is incredibly likely!”
Ben stopped chewing. Abbey was shaking, a frenzy overtook her.
“What if the Mark Three malfunctions? What if there’s an accident in the cooldown period? What if the “episodic disruption” as you call it turns out to be wider spread than we thought? If the pod is triggered before the end of the cooldown period someone could be trapped in a closed loop and never realise it, until perhaps they realise they’re growing old, or starving or not even then. They rejected my appeal, Ben but they’ll listen to you. Please, we need more time to work this out!”
Her voice rang through his aching head. The clouds swirled again, filling every cavity. “Alright, alright. I understand.” Ben shoved the last of the bar down his throat and raised his hands in submission. “Look, I’ll stay late. I’ll double and triple check the software and the impact controls. I’ll review the neurology data and tomorrow we’ll recommend to the directors that more studies are done. I can’t promise they’ll agree, the MOD’s pushing hard on them but…”
“Thanks Ben,” Abbey regained her breath. Her smile glowed. “It’d mean a lot. I’ll stay too.”
“No, you’ve put enough work into worrying about this. Go home, I’ll be fine.”
As Abbey slung her satchel over her shoulder and left, Ben sighed and reached for his coffee mug. He grasped the pot and poured a cupful. As he lifted it to his lips he again noted the ink on his palm. Whatever it was it could wait. No wonder he’d zoned out in the Mark Three, he felt completely drained.
Slowly, he made his way back along the winding corridors to the lab. He waved at the Erics who’d apparently solved their dispute and were leaving arm in arm, they didn’t see him. The biometric lock scanned him head to toe and buzzed. He drained his cup, placed it on the side and entered the pod. Sitting back in the low-slung seat Abbey’s words nagged at him.
He shook his head and touched the Mark Three’s interface. The panel flickered to life. The odds were astronomical. To be trapped you’d first need to make a mistake, ignoring all the protocols and warnings. His fingers tapped, dismissing the flashing windows and opening the console. Secondly, you’d need to travel back less than half an hour. Any further and your memory would recover before you could make the same mistake twice. He tapped at the buttons resetting the system to its defaults. Thirdly you’d need to…
The fog swirled. But this time it cleared on its own. His fingers froze in their tapping. Déjà vu. His memories stirred. He’d been out the door, at his car. Abbey had caught up with him, in one of her fits. He’d asked what was wrong, she’d explained. Drawn him back inside, used the whiteboard, pleaded with him. He’d agreed to check the system one last time before the directors told them to pack it up. He’d come in, sat down and…his eyes widened.
The pod door swung shut.
He pushed at it. It wouldn’t budge. He hit it with his fist, then his other, he hammered both on it and yelled.
A low hum sounded, slowly rising as the generators warmed up.
He turned to the panel, frantic, tapping at the screen. It didn’t work. He was locked out. He pressed his face against the pod’s window and yelled again.
“Help m-” his voice choked as he saw his reflection. His hair. Usually he wore it high and short. It was nearly at his shoulders. His ears were completely covered. He looked down at his nails. They were long and white. How hadn’t he noticed? A noise ahead of him. He looked out and the bottom dropped out of his world. It was Abbey. He could see the tears in her eyes. He’d seen them many times before, even though this was the first time she’d ever cried in front of him.
“I’m so sorry,” she sobbed, “It’s gone too far. They won’t listen to me…or to you. But if you’re gone-”
“Don’t do it Abbey!” he cried through the glass. “We can work this out!” As he said the words, he remembered that they never worked.
“No! I’m sorry but this is how it has to be.”
Shaking her hand reached for the button.
Ben looked about him in terror. His thoughts were now as clear as day. He could remember every second he’d experienced. Every single repetition of these never-ending thirty minutes.
The panel flashed.
He looked up. Abbey had fled. He could hear her sobs echoing down the corridor.
He searched through his pockets. For something, anything that could help.
His fingers brushed against something. He pulled it out. A pen!
He snatched off the top and scribbled on his palm. All he had to do was make one small change.
He finished writing. And smiled. This time would be different.
As the machine whirred and the world began to blur, he looked at the wet ink on his palm, the note reading ‘Don’t trust her.’ His smile faded. The note fitted perfectly over the smudge on his palm. Another mistake. The same mistake.
As the whirring reached fever pitch he closed his eyes. His mind began to fog, that precious clarity faded, even as he tried to grasp it. He focused on Abbey’s face. Perhaps if he could just remember that. Just remember. Remember…
His eyes opened.
“Hey, wake up!”
A voice. Whose? He turned. It was Abbey. Now what did she want? Didn’t she know that he needed to rest?
Abbey clicked her keys. Her car beeped in reply. Her eyes were red but the tears themselves had faded. She hadn’t believed she’d be capable. Hadn’t believed that she would do it. But when Ben had pulled himself out of the pod, eyes weary, hair wild and long, she’d realised that she already done it.
She climbed behind the wheel and hid her face in her hands.
It was for the greater good.
She repeated the sentence over and over. Without the lead engineer, the MOD would have to scrap the project. The Mark Three would be stored in a warehouse somewhere and Dr Werner’s legacy would be protected. Project Chronos would never begin or be twisted at the whim of those hateful warmongers. As for Ben…
There was a problem with the blueprint paradox, and closed loops. What happened when the blueprint had gone through ten loops, twenty, a hundred? What happened when its edges wore away, its diagrams bleached by the sun, the paper crumbled to dust? What happened when the blueprints could no longer be used to build the machine?
The key turned and the engine rumbled to life.
What would happen when Ben could no longer ignore his aging body? When his hair turned grey and his clothes wore to rags. Would he realise what was happening? Would he escape? Would the closed loop collapse aborting this timeline, freeing Ben to tell everyone what she’d done?
She didn’t know the answer. Couldn’t know. It was a problem for another time.